Children’s Homes etc. Inspection Fees, Childcare Fees, Adoption and Children Act Register (Amendment) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 18th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 4:30 pm, 18th June 2019

I assure the noble Lord that I will specifically address the issue of harder-to-place children in a moment.

Since we announced the closure back in August 2018, the Government have not received any feedback to suggest that local authorities and adoption agencies are having difficulties matching children. In fact, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said that,

“local authorities continue to take responsibility for our children who need adoption and the adopters we approve, and have never relied on one system alone in the matching process”,

and ahead of the closure, the sector leaders spoke out about their support for the decision.

On harder-to-place children, the noble Lords, Lord Russell and Lord Watson, sought reassurance that such children would not be more vulnerable or drop out of the system because of the loss of the register. The adoption register was never intended to be solely for harder-to-place children. Rather, it was to provide an alternative source of potential adopters for all children. To some extent, all children who are not placed locally, so needing a matching service, could be regarded as harder to place. But “harder to place” is generally understood to mean sibling groups, ethnic minorities, children over five years-old and children with a disability. One of the commercial alternatives contains a high number of hard-to-place children. I understand that its recent child cohort included 50% in a sibling group, 12% aged over five, 27% who did not identify as white British and 15% who had multiple health or emotional needs. I hope that that also addresses the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey.

In a recent survey by Link Maker, the alternative provider that was discussed, 67% of respondents said there had been no change to their ability to find matches for harder-to-place children, 14% suggested that it was now harder and 17% suggested that things had improved. Indeed one of the comments said,

“by far the most matches for the harder to place children, siblings groups etc, came via Link Maker rather than through the Adoption Register”.

The noble Lord, Lord Russell, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked how many children were likely to miss out on placements. That is the most crucial question in this debate. I would like to reassure noble Lords that children are not being left behind following this decision. There is no gap in provision; children are and will continue to be matched with loving families. The Government will of course continue to monitor this and robust action will be taken if this changes.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked about a lack of proactive searching. I understand that there is concern that the alternative provider offers only a system, whereas the register provided an additional service. As the noble Lord said, the register employed 10 regional business partners to search for links. In 2018-19, it found 120 matches. During the same period, the main commercial alternative found 967 matches. If a child has been waiting for a long period, the main commercial provider system will proactively contact the social worker to provide assistance.

Alongside the register, agencies have used a range of other services and also use the exchange and activity days that I have already mentioned, including commissioning them for their areas. It is important to acknowledge the important work of Coram in this area. I recognise the important work that the noble Lord, Lord Russell, does with Coram and the support he provides to it.

Naturally, I understand concerns when we talk about commercial providers, but I assure noble Lords that we are not talking about large organisations making a profit at the expense of children and adopters. The main commercial provider, Link Maker, is a social enterprise run by a group of adopters. It monitors the progress of children added to the system, and if a child has been on the system for an extended period, an email is sent suggesting ways of finding matches. I understand that another service is being launched and will be run by Coram, which, as I said, is respected for its work.

For the main commercial provider, subscriptions by local authorities are paid on an annual basis, not per child. There is no reason—in particular, no financial reason —why a commercial service would ignore harder-to-place children. Local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child they are looking after, and I trust that they will continue to fulfil this duty.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, asked about the cost of Link Maker. I appreciate the concern about the cost of commercial alternatives. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State said to the committee, on average it costs a local authority about £5,000 a year for the subscription. I appreciate the concern when considering that the adoption register was a free service, but it is important to state that the majority of adoption agencies—around 93—were already paying for a subscription.

The noble Lord, Lord Russell, asked about our future plans. The Motion refers to work we are undertaking on the feasibility of a future digital infrastructure to support this area. This brings us to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Russell, about the Select Committee and Sir Martin Narey. Both reports suggested that the Government’s work for the most vulnerable children in our care is too siloed. The reviews found that considering the component parts of the care system, for example fostering and adoption, in isolation,

“creates an unhelpful divide in the way we approach a child’s experience in the system and his or her routes to permanence”.

In response to this, we are trying to improve support across the sectors with better information and better systems. Agencies hold and share a lot of data and need to ensure that it is managed appropriately. We are exploring the feasibility of introducing a system that can bring it together to support better communication and present it in one place in a user-friendly way. We agree that this makes sound sense and we are actively considering the implementation of a single list.

Reflecting the findings of these recent reviews, we want to work with the sector to think through the best digital infrastructure to support adoption and fostering. My colleague, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, will write to colleagues to provide more detail on this work following the spending review.

Beyond the adoption register, I shall also say a few words about what else these regulations cover. They make changes to inspection fees for social care providers and childcare providers. They introduce a 10% increase to the fees payable to Ofsted by some social care providers to move closer to full cost recovery. This increase has been made annually since 2010. As well as this, Ofsted charges an annual registration fee to childcare providers on the early years register. This statutory instrument maintains the current registration fee of £50 for a specific group of providers that operate for only a limited number of hours each day, reducing the potential burden on childcare providers of a fee increase.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred to the procedure used for these changes to the regulations. I understand that there has been some concern. We are advised that the negative procedure was correct for this type of change, and it is the procedure set out in the primary legislation. We spoke to the sector extensively, and it was comfortable with the adoption register coming to an end. We wanted to revoke an unnecessary duty; indeed, we were asked to do so by the sector. There was therefore a feeling that this was routine and that we were attempting to tidy up regulations so as not to leave a redundant duty. I reassure noble Lords that there was no attempt to hide this or slip it through under the radar.

I welcome noble Lords’ interest in these regulations. I want to provide reassurance that the Government have spoken to the sector extensively regarding changes to the adoption register and that that dialogue continues. Feedback shows that users of the register are comfortable with the decision to end its operation. We have not received any feedback to suggest that agencies are struggling without it. I accept the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that it is early days; however, had it been crucial to the operation of local authorities, within three months we would have heard something from them.

I hope that I have been able to provide more context to these changes and to reassure noble Lords of the focused and necessary attention of these regulations. On that basis, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Russell, to withdraw his Motion.